The National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative's Namesake: Donald J. Cohen

The Initiative that established the National Network for Child Traumatic Stress bears the name of Donald J. Cohen, MD, a pioneer in the field of children's mental health. Sterling Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology and Director of the Yale Child Study Center since 1983, Cohen died on October 2, 2001, at age 61.

In Donald J. Cohen's family, the story is often told that when Donald was five years old he went up to his room to study and never came down. He was an avid scholar who loved French poetry and German philosophy, as well as science and medicine.  In his own field, he was both a scientist of neurophysiology, and a humanist, with tremendous compassion and insight into his patients.

Donald J. Cohen graduated summa cum laude in philosophy and psychology from Brandeis University and then won a Fulbright Scholarship that enabled him to spend a post-graduate year in Cambridge, England. He went on to the Yale School of Medicine and to general psychiatry training at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and then completed child psychiatry training in Boston and Washington, DC.

In 1972, he joined the Yale Child Study Center where he performed some of the earliest and most significant studies on the tic disorders. He helped innumerable children suffering from Tourette’s syndrome by proposing the use of the anti-hypertensive drug clonidine as a treatment.  Regardless of the disorder he was studying, Dr. Cohen engaged parents to an unprecedented degree. He took their advice in designing his studies and shared his papers with them before submitting them for publication. He called this approach, "participatory research," and the children's families loved him for it. In 1983, Dr. Cohen became Director of the Yale Child Study Center and Chair of the Department of Child Psychiatry.

His deep commitment to the field of child traumatic stress is illustrated in just one of the programs he established while at Yale. He formed a new alliance between the New Haven Police Department and children's mental health practitioners at the Yale Child Study Center. The Center trained the New Haven police officers so that they would be aware of the effects of traumatic events on children. When police went to the scene of a homicide, domestic abuse, or other potentially traumatic event, and found that children were involved, they immediately called in a member of the Yale Child Study Center. This unique program continues to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Donald J. Cohen saw himself as a citizen of the world, collaborating with and organizing collaborations among scientists and scholars all over the world. He was committed to improving the mental health of children not only in the United States, but internationally. During his life, he authored over 300 articles, 159 book chapters, and served as author or editor of a dozen books. He edited the definitive textbooks on pervasive developmental disorders and on tic disorders, such as Tourette's. He co-edited a major book on children's play, and co-authored one of the most thorough guides for parents, The Yale Companion to Parenting. His colleagues and patients remember him as someone who saw the best in everyone and did everything in his power to help others reach their full potential.